September 18, 2018 / 7:06 AM / a month ago

Headwinds before takeoff for new Thai Airways team

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Struggling national carrier Thai Airways International PCL is pinning hopes of a revival to its 1990s heyday on a new leadership team, jet purchases and improving its brand as tourism booms in the region.

FILE PHOTO: A Thai Airways Boeing 777-300ER plane takes off from Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport February 23, 2015. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom/File Photo

But the new president and chairman taking the helm are political appointees without aviation experience and several executives told Reuters the airline needs to adjust to a market where the good times of having a near-monopoly at home are long over.

Challenges for the new team include cutting costs, managing a mixed fleet, coping with loss-making subsidiaries as well as healing long-time rifts between government-appointed management and airline veterans.

Thailand has been the beneficiary of a boom in tourist arrivals, particularly from China, but as foreign airlines like Qatar Airways and China Eastern Airlines Corp have rushed to add flights, Thai Airways has reported annual losses for four of the last five years.

“Thai Airways did not adapt quickly enough and competes in one of the world’s toughest industries,” former Thai Airways president Piyasvasti Amranand said.

The structure of state enterprises in Thailand slows decision-making because the carrier needs to seek approval from many agencies for decisions, he said.

Other national carriers in the region where the government takes an active role have had similar struggles; Malaysia Airlines has yet to return to profitability after two disasters in 2014 and Garuda Indonesia last week replaced its latest CEO after 17 months.

In contrast, Singapore Airlines Ltd, majority-owned by state investor Temasek, and government-controlled Air New Zealand Ltd, are run in a hands-off manner and are profitable.

On paper, prospects are good for Thai Airways. Air traffic is booming in Asia - the International Air Transport Association forecast profits of Asia-Pacific airlines to increase 8.4 percent from last year to $9 billion in 2018.

Also, Thailand expects 37.5 million visitors this year, up 6 percent from 2017, most of whom arrive by air.

UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT

But Thai Airways’ new president, Sumeth Damrongchaitham, who started the job this month after an 18-month search, has his work cut out.

The 53-year-old has to turn around the national carrier, which reported $93 million losses in its April-June quarter amid higher fuel prices.

Thai Airways last posted a profit in the first quarter of 2018. On an annual basis it posted a profit in 2016 and before that in 2012.

Sumeth’s previous experience has been in managing government property and in the music industry

The military-led Thai government, which owns 51 percent of the airline, has representation on the board and oversight of investment plans.

Jothin Pamon-Montri, a former senior vice president at the airline, said the lack of aviation experience was not necessarily a problem, but Sumeth would need to work closely with career employees.

“The president must consult management and listen to staff to solve problems and forget the outside advisers,” Jothin said.

Sumeth will be working with a new board chairman, Ekniti Nitithanprapas, who ran the State Enterprise Policy Office from 2015 to 2018, a government unit that oversees the airline.

Ekniti, who took over in July, is seen as a capable bureaucrat but may have his plate full heading the government’s revenue department and as chairman of the state-owned Krung Thai Bank.

Sumeth and Ekniti declined interview requests.

Thai Airways did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

NOT ALL SMILES

Sources close to Thai Airways said a pressing issue was what to do with loss-making subsidiary Thai Smile, which was set up in 2012 as a mid-range brand when Piyasvasti was president.

Piyasvasti, who was president from 2009 to 2012, brought the airline into profitability but was removed abruptly by the then democratically-elected government.

In 2014, Thai Smile began operating under a separate licence, in a move that airline sources said led to problems with service, network connectivity and to tension with the parent airline.

Jothin, who was at Thai Airways for 35 years, says a priority for the new team is to reintegrate Thai Smile under the Thai Airways brand and licence.

“We had no plans to spin off Thai Smile into its own airline at the time. It was going to be another brand under Thai Airways,” Piyasvasti said.

Singapore Airlines Ltd is planning to do that with its regional offshoot SilkAir to provide a more consistent experience for customers.

In the budget market, Nok Air, in which Thai Airways holds a 20 percent stake, has been unprofitable for the last four years in the face of rapid growth from competitors like Thai Lion Air and Thai AirAsia.

“There could be an opportunity for Thai Airways to increase its involvement and potentially take over Nok,” CAPA Centre for Aviation Chief Analyst Brendan Sobie said. “Developing a new multi-brand strategy could be an important initial task for the new CEO. Such a strategy would strengthen Thai’s long term position.”

TRIMMING THE FAT

Thai Airway’s legacy of a mixed fleet after purchases by previous governments is another challenge. Most airlines like to operate only a few types of jets to gain economies of scale in areas like maintenance and pilot training.

But Thai Airways, which requires government approval for fleet purchases, operates almost every available type of Airbus SE and Boeing Co widebody jet, from A380s to 787s, but none in particularly large numbers.

The new leadership should “focus on reducing expenses and trimming the fat,” Piyasvasti said, adding that a fleet strategy should include a rolling plan for new aircraft and decommissioning old jets that are not fuel efficient.

In July, the Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith said that the carrier would be purchasing 23 new jets for $3 billion but it has yet to place a formal order or disclose the types involved.

Thai Airways shares have fallen by 25 percent since January. Most analysts have “neutral” or “sell” recommendations on the stock as they wait to see Sumeth’s strategy for reviving the carrier.

“It is important for Thai Airways to move forward with fleet renewal and acquisition, which has been repeatedly delayed and is now a pressing issue,” CAPA’s Sobie said. “There is still work to do in the transformation and there are many challenges to overcome.”

A Thai Airways Boeing 777-300 airplane approaches to land at Changi International Airport in Singapore June 10, 2018. REUTERS/Tim Chong/Files

Reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng and Panu Wongcha-um, Editing by Jamie Freed and Raju Gopalakrishnan

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